It’s been a standard of life long before Ikea: assembly instructions are often horrible. Usually horrible. Almost always horrible.
While this is usually due to translation issues or poor writing skills, you can buck this trend if you find yourself in the unlucky position of writing a manual or set of instructions for how to assemble something from a bunch of other things. The following should help you understand and overcome your challenges in telling people what to do step by step.
Pronouns with No Common Frame of Reference
The first thing to remember is that, presumably, you know what you’re talking about, and the reader/assembler does not. Assembly instructions typically have a diagram or small illustrations to identify the pieces, which is great, but after that, instructions often assume that such references make readers experts.
If a piece is called “Screw A4” in a diagram, then for the rest of the instructions, it should be called “Screw A4,” never “the larger screw” or “it.” If it’s called “Long Ceramic Plate B” in the diagram, never call it anything else.
Put simply, instructions should avoid pronouns because one brief identification of a thing the reader/assembler has never seen before isn’t enough. Does that make for smooth prose? No. But that’s not the point. And while you don’t want to be wordy, don’t skip articles.
Bad Ex: With half of shelf clip held against post with wide end down, snap on shelf clip.
Good Ex: Hold one half of Shelf Clip #1 against Post #1 with the wide end facing downward. Snap Shelf Clip #2 onto Post #1.
Remember that readers aren’t experts; don’t call pieces by names only experts know. If you have a “biscuit,” which is a woodworking tool used to join two pieces of wood together, don’t call it a biscuit. What a distracting term! Is there gravy too? Just call it “Wood Piece 1” or something like that. Other such assembly terms to avoid include the following:
• Balloon Wall
• Butt Joint
And so on.
If an Explanation Will Help, Offer It
You need to be aware of when an assembly step, even one you’ve made as simple as you possibly can, is still complicated or, even worse, mysterious. If you demand a step that serves no immediate purpose, the assembler may skip it or just not understand what goes where. It’s a bad set of instructions if the reader feels they’re playing a one-person game of Twister.
Bad Ex: With Leg #1 and Leg #2 crisscrossed, insert Rod #3 through Holes A and B.
Good Ex: With Leg #1 and Leg #2 crisscrossed so that Hole A and Hole B are aligned, insert Rod #3 through Holes A and B so Rod #3 passes fully through Legs #1 and 2.
Pay Attention to Chronology
A set of instructions can often make the reader feel like they need three hands, and this is usually due a sequence of actions described as though the actions are to be done all at once. As the instructor, you need to make sure you’re not skipping steps and that the process has been broken down completely to one action at a time.
Bad Ex: Counting off 4 stitches from the marker by purling into the first and fourth stitch, knit all the remaining stitches before turning the piece with 8 stitches to go.
Good Ex: Purl into the first stitch, knit the second and third stitches, purl the fourth stitch. Knit the remaining stitches until 8 stitches to the end of the piece, then turn.
Note how the second version, while being so much more specific, doesn’t need more words? That brings us to:
Never Be Funny, Friendly, or Wordy
Assembly instructions should be dull. They should have no personality (apart from a very carefully humorous graphic, if helpful). They should not chatter, reassure, or repeat themselves for emphasis.
Say it once, say it clearly, and move on.
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